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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Sixth-graders Kansas Bottomley, left, and Allison Kropp, center, assist the Kendallville Public Library teen librarian on a project.

Noble libraries plan to study consolidation

Tax rates, services among issues

Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Kathy Clarke, left, helps daughter Marie Bontrager on an English paper at the Kendallville Public Library. Bontrager is a sophomore at Ivy Tech in Fort Wayne.

In 1914, Albion residents signed a petition to create what would eventually become the Noble County Public Library.

Almost a century later, the library is at a crossroads.

The county library board Thursday night unanimously approved a resolution to launch a yearlong study on combining the system with the county’s two other library systems – the Kendallville and Ligonier public libraries.

The idea has the support of directors of the three libraries, who say a year of study is a no-risk proposition. The directors of the Ligonier and Kendallville libraries will offer identical resolutions to their boards this month.

The Indiana State Library says such mergers are unusual but can have great benefits to patrons.

The one-year study would look at tax rates, salaries, consolidation of services and whether a merger makes financial sense. For the entire year of the study, any board could pull out if it feels it’s not right for its patrons.

If approved, the consolidation would follow a decade of dramatic changes for the Noble County and Kendallville library systems.

Kendallville Public Library staff eyed the weather this week, waiting for a nice day to return rocking chairs that had been stored during the winter to the porch overlooking Bixler Lake.

The scenic lake view is one of the most distinctive features of the library, which opened in 2007.

Library Director Jenny Draper doesn’t expect much opposition to the resolution, or even the idea of a merger – except, perhaps, a fear of loss of identity. That would be something the libraries would try to avoid.

No buildings would be closed under the proposal, and no jobs would be cut, although some might be reassigned as the libraries combine services, she said.

“Each community really has its own identity, and we would certainly do everything we could to maintain that identity,” she said.

Kendallville’s library staff and board are used to controversy. A failed remonstrance attempt held up construction of the library.

A selling point of a merger might be that debt from library projects won’t be spread among all county residents. State law dictates that even with a merger, debt would remain within the original districts.

Kendallville still has $6 million in debt, and the Noble County Public Library opened a new Avilla branch several years back and did extensive renovations elsewhere, Draper said.

The library systems have been taking baby steps toward combining services for years and already have reciprocal borrowing agreements, Draper said.

The coming together started small with combined summer reading programs. That led to more cooperation and joint in-service days; staff members from all three library systems are used to working together, she said.

But that doesn’t mean a countywide system is anything near a done deal.

“This is just a study,” Draper said. “That’s all they are committing to.”

Noble County Public Library Director Sandy Petrie agreed. The library has three locations: Its main library in Albion and branches in Cromwell and Avilla.

“It makes no sense not to do the study, in my opinion,” Petrie said.

Merging of library systems is uncommon, but not unheard of, said Jacob Speer, supervisor of the Indiana State Library’s library development office.

In general, such mergers are less contentious than mergers of school districts but not completely without controversy, Speer said. The libraries could find that a merger did not make sense economically or could wish to preserve their own districts.

The most recent merger was in Adams County, when library systems in Decatur and Geneva merged, forming the Adams Public Library System in 2008.

In that case, the smaller library in Geneva found that its ability to provide more titles to its readers greatly increased, Speer said.

“It hurts nothing to examine it,” he said.